Where Have The Great Number Tens Gone?


By Valentin Boulan (@valentinboulan)

Football was once pretty straight forward. More often than not, teams consisted of a keeper protected by 9 athletic brutes. They were lead by a smart, gifted leader who graciously set the tempo and controlled his team’s game.

The number 10 has always occupied a special place in the beautiful game, and rightly so. From Diego Maradona to Pele, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, many of the game’s finest sported the favoured number, as well as the position and responsibilities it came with.

Nowadays though, number 10’s are becoming an extinct breed, a tactical luxury most teams don’t seem to deem worth incorporating. Consequently, even the likes of Mesut Ozil and Wesley Sneijder have failed to secure a place ‘in the hole’ at a club like Real Madrid, despite bags of ability.


One argument is that playmakers have become too easy to neutralise. Putting so much emphasis on one man bears the risk of a poor collective display, should the player get injured, have a bad day or simply get marked effectively by the opposition. By contrast, playing a flexible midfield three offer several options going forward, as well as more security in defensive situations.

In recent years, it also appears the physical aspect of the game has become more prevalent. While a few romantic anomalies from the past like Andrea Pirlo remain, most players are now expected to be super fit athletes.

Pace for instance has become a key asset, with the likes of Theo Walcott and Arjen Robben pretty much capable of competing with professional sprinters. Again the traditional 10, heavily reliant on his touch and vision, doesn’t seem to fit the required description.

This isn’t to say that talent on the ball has become secondary by any means. Rather, it’s now an expectation that all players should be able to play the ball out and have good technique. The emergence of the attacking fullback and technical defensive midfielder shows us that.

Playmakers, once the kings of possession are now seen as regular players lacking the physical impact and discipline expected to succeed in the modern game.

In other words, they’re an unattractive prospect.

There’s an alternative view.

Perhaps the number 10 role is not disappearing so much as evolving. For a start, it’s worth noting how little importance players now pay shirt numbers which, means number 10s are literally harder to identify. Arsenal fans, still scarred by the sight of William Gallas wearing Dennis Bergkamp’s legendary jersey, can certainly testify.

Last season alone, there were numerous cases of players successfully setting the tempo from a midfield position.

Cesc Fabregas, Toni Kroos and Santi Cazorla are prime examples which spring to mind. While they played deeper on the pitch, their individual attributes and roles are reminiscent of the traditional playmaker.

Similarly, players sitting in front of the back four like PSG’s Thiago Motta are hugely influential as they enjoy more time on the ball and a better position from which to assess the game.

Likewise, the inverted wingers’ trend has meant players have been able to enjoy a playmaking role cutting in from wide positions. At his FC Barcelona peak, that’s the role Ronaldinho occupied most of the time.

So do you think number 10’s are a dying breed? Or are they simply evolving with the times?

To find more of Valentin’s work please visit his blog A French Guy In London.


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